July 19, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Dec. 5 is a date to keep in mind. That is the day when the United States and European countries will impose stricter sanctions on Russia because of its military invasion of Ukraine. That round of sanctions amounts to a full ban of cargo shipments of Russian oil to Europe.

Global oil prices will probably not wait until December to rise, and traders expect Americans to start paying higher prices at the gas pump by early October.

The new sanctions are planned because, despite sanctions already in place, Russian oil continues to find its way into the global markets. Stricter sanctions will cut the Russian oil even further and make global oil supplies even tighter, driving up prices. The Washington Post shows how much that could cost:

The sanctions would be accompanied by a ban on insuring ships that carry Russian oil, preventing them from accessing international waterways. The insurance policies for most of the world’s oil cargo ships are written out of Europe.

As a result, Russia would confront steep new obstacles to moving its oil anywhere. The sanctions are intended to double the amount of Russian oil pulled from the market since the war began.

An internal U.S. Treasury analysis projects that could send the price of oil soaring 50% above where it is today. Some market analysts are warning of potentially steeper climbs, which could push gas prices beyond $6 a gallon.

The warnings all come with caveats. In the event of more bad economic news signaling a prolonged recession, for example, prices would likely stabilize. Less gasoline is used when the economy is in retreat.

The price increase could arrive just before the midterm elections in the U.S., which worries incumbents. President Joe Biden’s request for more oil supplies from Saudi Arabia last week did not produce any promises that the Saudis would step up production.

The Biden administration is discussing a “price cap” alternative that would allow Russia to keep selling oil to the world but at a reduced price. Such a plan, supporters say, allows European countries to avoid energy shortages while not giving Russia the income it needs to feed its war in Ukraine. The idea of limiting how much Russia can charge for oil (to $40 to $60 a barrel) has many doubters. But many countries — including Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Japan, and the European Union — say they are open to exploring the idea.

It is worth mentioning that crude exports from Russia to China and India are down nearly 30% since the war began. The pain of short oil supplies may be about to set in hard in Asia.

Homebuilders send warning about home sales and affordability

The National Association of Home Builders is sending a strong warning about home sales. The homebuilders’ confidence dropped this month more than almost any time in the 35 years the association has kept records.

The single biggest issue for buyers is — no surprise here — affordability. Part of it is the product of a year or two of super-heated demand and low inventory, but add to that rising interest rates and the confidence level about the future of home sales fell in every region of the country.

Forbes called the report a “meltdown” in the housing industry. Newsweek’s headline reads, “Housing Market Fears as Home Builder Confidence Suffers Near-Record Plunge.” US News and World Report headlined the story, “Is Housing the Next Shoe to Drop for the Economy?”

Halfway through 2022, US has experienced nine $1 billion weather disasters

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, the Washburn Fire burns next to a roadway north of the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park, Calif., Monday, July 11, 2022. (National Park Service via AP)

As The New York Times points out, “Already, the city of Tulsa has experienced more days above 100 degrees this summer than it historically has in an entire summer on average.”

And yet, it became clearer last week that Congress has decided that climate change is not something that it will take action on this year. It will do what other sessions of Congress have done: delay and defer. And the Supreme Court gutted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. As the Times story put it:

An electorate already struggling with inflation, exhausted by Covid and adjusting to tectonic changes like the end to constitutionally protected abortions may give the latest Democratic defeat a resigned shrug. And that may be why climate change remains an issue with little political power, either for those pressing for dramatic action or for those standing in the way.

“People are exhausted by the pandemic, they’re terribly disillusioned by the government,” said Anusha Narayanan, climate campaign director for Greenpeace USA, the environmental group known for its guerrilla tactics but now struggling to mobilize supporters. She added: “People see climate as a tomorrow problem. We have to make them see it’s not a tomorrow problem.”

Since weather is on the mind of millions of Americans living through a super-heated week, here is something to keep in mind. This month, I am leading a team of experts teaching journalists how to more aggressively cover key issues in the 2022 midterm election cycle.

One of our experts, meteorologist Bernadette Woods Placky from Climate Central, told our class in Madison, Wisconsin, last week that America is experiencing billion-dollar weather-related losses more frequently. Now, of course, the data is skewed by adjusting for inflation, but already in 2022, there have been nine $1 billion weather-related events, and the most severe weather — including hurricane season — is still ahead of us.


This is the data from 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports:

In broader context, the total cost of U.S. billion-dollar disasters over the last 5 years (2017-2021) is $742.1 billion, with a 5-year annual cost average of $148.4 billion, both of which are new records and nearly triple the 42-year inflation adjusted annual average cost. The U.S. billion-dollar disaster damage costs over the last 10-years (2012-2021) were also historically large:  at least $1.0 trillion from 142 separate billion-dollar events.

It is concerning that 2021 was another year in a series of years where we had a high frequency, a high cost, and large diversity of extreme events that affect people’s lives and livelihoods—concerning because it hints that the extremely high activity of recent years is becoming the new normal.


By the way, our teaching caravan next heads to Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia; and St. Petersburg. We will record the St. Pete sessions and offer them online soon.


The backlash over violent crime threatens mass incarceration reform

My friend Jamiles Lartey at The Marshall Project has a strong piece about how New Orleans’ efforts to lower the number of people in the local jail have run head-on into the city’s rising crime rate. New Orleans is just an example of a much larger debate about to what extent justice reform has contributed to rising crime. Public pressure to do something about crime is making it more difficult for justice reformers to find their voice. Lartey writes:

It’s too early to say if policy changes by newly elected officials are having an effect on crime. Many of the changes have been philosophical and are difficult to measure. But in a series of hearings this year, multiple city councilmembers, all Democrats, referred to what they called a “revolving door” legal system, citing low bonds that allowed people accused of violent crimes to go free before trial. Some residents, and even a councilman, have floated the idea of sending in the National Guard to help police the streets — a move the state’s governor has rejected.

Violent crime began rising before any of the candidates elected on progressive platforms took office — a fact they argue shows the “old way” hasn’t worked. The increase in violence here also mirrors many other U.S. cities, regardless of whether they pursued criminal justice reforms. Still, with New Orleans seeing one of the largest homicide rate increases of any U.S. city since the start of the pandemic, many residents are looking for answers — and someone to blame. With at least one judgeship possibly opening this year, voters may soon have another chance to decide if the city is at the beginning of a new experiment or at the end of one.

Lartey will be teaching with me this week at our Covering Jails and Justice workshop in Memphis. We have one more of our workshops — the 15th in four years — still ahead. That one will be Sept. 8-9 in Minneapolis. Applications for working journalists are open now. We cover the tuition and have some grant funds to help with hotel costs for out-of-town journalists.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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